Thanatos, Drunk is the sort of film that divides the audience. Helmed by Chang Tso-chi, one of Taiwan’s most promising (and controversial) auteurs, Thanatos, Drunk, with its lyrical title, hints at signs of poetic profundity that can either inspire or confound the viewer. Sadly, what the film manages to achieve most is a state of boredom.
The Chinese title, which literally translates as “drunkenness, life, dream, death,” gives you a taste of the motifs that Chang wishes to explore. Thanatos, Drunk revolves around Rat (Lee Hong-chi), a young man who is haunted by the death of his alcoholic mother and who worships Shuo (Cheng Jen-shuo), a male escort that is dating Rat’s cousin. After Rat’s mother’s death, Rat’s elder brother Chang-he (Cheng Jen-shuo) returns home and together with Rat’s cousin Da-xiong (Ching-Ting Wang) and Shuo, the four of them live in a ramshackle house located at the fringes of Taipei.
Rat whiles away his time peddling vegetables in the market and befriending creatures as marginalized as he is, filling the silence with one-sided conversations with the ants and tilapia fish that he keeps as pets. His loneliness is echoed by the other characters who are also struggling with the impasse in which their lives are mired. Rat’s cousin Da-xiong cannot free herself from a parasitical boyfriend who does not love her. Her boyfriend Shuo is a gigolo who leeches women for their money and insists on the life of a profligate despite the hollowness he nurses within. The world that Chang creates for his characters is a veritable purgatory, a world without much hope, change, or meaning. Even when there is a prospect of romance or sexual consummation presented to the characters, it is merely a reprieve that does little to save the characters from their chronic unhappiness.
While the fact that most the characters are trapped in a grim cul-de-sac certainly doesn’t help make Thanatos, Drunk an easy film to enjoy, it is the dialogue that tests one’s patience. Conversations between characters are bland to a degree of being insufferable, and Rat’s voiceovers, which are used to bridge the plot and provide insight into the characters, are by contrast too heavy-handed in their attempts to appear introspective. Moody metaphors abound, begging to be taken seriously. One voiceover near the beginning, for instance, has Rat describing how he sees the crafty Shuo as a “glorious pig’s head, cradled in my cousin’s arms, cleverly hidden but moaning.” Such metaphors frequently reoccur in visual form, some more subtle than others, and as a whole promise more layers of profundity than the film’s thinly drawn characters are able to deliver.
Thanatos, Drunk is therefore best taken as a drunkard’s ramble, a place where sobriety retreats and stupor takes over. If one views the film as an embodiment of dipsomania, one can perhaps be more forgiving towards the listless plot and the inane conversations on the basis that the characters are not truly conversing with each other but instead talking only to themselves, with their loud prattle barely suppressing inner desperation. When taken in small doses, Thanatos, Drunk has its artistic merits, but after too much of it, you will just want the mindless babble to come to an end.
Thanatos, Drunk will be shown as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2016 at King’s Safra on May 14.